You could say that Paul Fireman wears two pairs of sneakers. The chairman and CEO of Reebok is also the head of Willowbend Development Corp., a booming golf course construction and management business (the Westin Rio Mar, Puerto Rico; The Ranch, Massachusetts; Marriott Starr Pass, Arizona; among others). A seven-handicap, Fireman is a fanatic for natural settings. Here, he talks about being a caddie, growing the Reebok brand and building the spectacular Liberty National Golf Club—opening July 4, 2006—in the shadow of Manhattan.
How did you learn golf?
Growing up in Brockton, Massachusetts, there was a very good course. I started caddying there when I was about ten years old and my father joined the club. I caddied for some really good golfers, and they helped me pick up the game. I'd climb over the fence before sunset and play a couple holes.
From caddie to CEO of Reebok. What happened in between?
We had a family business that primarily made fishing tackle. I did that for seventeen years, but it wasn't going to grow much, so I started going to sporting-goods shows to see if there was another business I could become involved in. At one show in 1979, Reebok was exhibiting. They were small. I don't think they were making more than four hundred pairs of shoes a week, all by hand. I met the owner and was amazed that the company's story was not known. I became his North American distributor. After a while, he came to me and suggested I buy the business. I paid maybe $1.5 million.
How'd you make it such a success?
I looked at what consumers were putting up with to break in shoes. You'd get blisters, and it took two weeks to get them softer. So we developed leather that was soft and supple so you could put them on and not get blisters.
Where's the company going?
In the early 1990s I stepped away from managing, and the company took a wrong turn. Four or five years ago I became more involved, and recently I decided to come back officially. My feeling is that our role is to define our industry, not just live in it. That's what we're doing. We're creating products.
You've also got quite a golf business.
Yeah, I don't know how that happened, but we've built about nineteen golf courses.
What was your first golf venture?
Besides being a caddie or mowing the fairway?I had a home on Cape Cod, and it was hard to get onto courses. There was one called Willowbend that ran into trouble. I bought it out of receivership, and I built it into a type of [private] course that was missing in the world—one that had diversity and wasn't run by members but for members.
I've heard that you've personally faced discrimination.
I've had that experience. Some people have not wanted me in their clubs because I am Jewish. I think I proved the point down on the Cape that a club can be incredibly successful and be made up of all different ethnicities and backgrounds.
Is Liberty National in New Jersey your most ambitious project?
By far. The land was amassed over time by a family in New Jersey. I bought it and brought in Bob Cupp and Tom Kite to build something iconic. It's a 7,400-yard par-seventy course. It overlooks the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan. It has 5,000 feet of shoreline. It is elevated so that almost every hole has water views. On one hole, you hit with the Statue of Liberty as your target. It is a phenomenal piece of land.
And membership runs $500,000?
The building cost is exorbitant, so the shame is that the people who will join will have to have a lot of money. But we will work on ideas to give young people a chance to play.
What's your ideal round?
A good competitive match with friends. I like to go out and have fun. I think a lot about golf as a metaphor for life. The harder you swing, the less far it goes. That's the same in business. You must stay within balance.
Scorecard PAUL FIREMAN
BEST SCORE 69 at Thorny Lea Golf Club, where he caddied as a youth (Brockton, MA)
FAVORITE COURSES Pebble Beach; The Country Club; Kittansett Club, MA; Willowbend, MA
EQUIPMENT Cobra woods, Callaway irons and Odyssey long putter